The ring of eman vath, p.30
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.30

           Hal Emerson
 
AmyQuinn tried to still her breathing, but it was no use. She continued to gasp, and the stitch in her side seemed ready to split apart.

  The darkness and rain that had given them cover were both now fading away: the sky was lightening, to the point where her magelights were hardly necessary. They’d made it almost all the way through the Pass, pushing their horses as hard as they reasonably could, and she was certain that they were nearing the other side. The light of the sun had just made it over the edge of the horizon when she glanced back and saw their pursuers gaining: men in black armor headed by a man in a dark cloak, the hood of which had been whipped back by the wind to reveal a bone mask.

  How is there another one? she thought desperately.

  She swung her gaze back around forward and saw the final bend of the pass, and felt also the mare shudder beneath her even as it kept staggering onward. If they didn’t make it soon, they might not make it at all. They crawled forward, seeming to move slower with every step…

  “I see it!”

  AmyQuinn followed Wren’s outstretched finger. He was right – the Fort had come into sight. It glistened as the light of the morning sun hit the gathered dew that lay thick on its roofs and gables, and she could just see the sleeping figures of the villagers who lived in the nearby town making their way to work.

  And, as if by some miracle, a lone figure was making its own way through the gates on some errand or other – a figure that was just distinguishable in the morning light by the gray cloak and faded red vest it wore.

  “VALINOR!”

  She knew that they were too far away for him to hear her, but they wouldn’t be for long. Pulling the horse with the still-unconscious Samson behind her, she raced down the road that led inexorably to the gates of the Fort, between the two gaping ravines that yawned on either side of it.

  “VALINOR!”

  The Sorev Ael stopped his progress as if he’d heard, and she felt a rush of relief that was so heady it made the world spin. He turned to look behind him, back through the gates, and when he didn’t see anyone he looked the other way around the Fort, obviously convinced that it was someone nearby who’d hailed him.

  Wren took up the call as well, and they raced down the slope as fast as their exhausted mounts could carry them. Between them they raised such a racket that AmyQuinn was surprised the whole town didn’t come out to see what was the matter.

  Finally, the Sorev Ael’s rugged face turned toward the pass.

  “Help!” she cried out, gesturing wildly. “HELP!”

  But by then they were close enough that she could see details of his face, and she was certain he could see them and knew something was wrong. His eyes focused on her and widened, taking in the other horse she led and the shouting, desperate Wren riding along beside her. A chill of fear rushed over her, but she pushed it down. They would be safe inside the Fort; they would be safe there with the stationed guards and Valinor himself to look after them.

  “Help!” she cried again as she rode up, barely slackening her pace at all, trying to keep the mare moving as she desperately fought the stitch in her side that made it almost impossible to take a full breath. “We’re being followed!”

  Without another word, Valinor beckoned them and disappeared back inside the Fort’s massive gate. She heard shouting from behind the huge wall, saw faces appear above clad in silver helms, and then they were through, passing beneath the portcullis and beyond the thick iron-studded doors.

  The sound of the shouting redoubled on the other side with no walls to block the noise, and AmyQuinn recognized Valinor’s clear and carrying baritone calling for speed, urging the watch to man the walls and sound the alarm.

  She reined in her horse and shot a glance over her shoulder back up the road to the distant pass. She caught a single image before the doors slammed shut and the gate was lowered: a lone figure with the hood of his cloak thrown back to reveal a mask of bone, wrapped in an air of power and darkness that surrounded him even in the growing light of day.

  Suddenly the Fort seemed no more than a paper castle.

  “There!” she cried up to the men on the wall. “There – do you see him?!”

  The portcullis clanged into place, and a heavy wooden bar was lowered into brackets to lock the door. The men atop the wall heard her and followed the line of her gestures. She watched them freeze and then pull back; their hands dropped to their weapons, and they began to shout to others up and down the wall to ready for an attack. Somewhere a horn began to blow high and clear, and AmyQuinn turned toward the center of the Fort to see the barracks divest itself of a flood of eager soldiers. They made straight for the wall, spears in hand, and as they went they called for the people inside the fort to return to their homes and stay there.

  “Where have you been? What’s happened?”

  AmyQuinn turned at the sound of Valinor’s voice. She dismounted, pulling her staff out from behind her saddle where she’d tied it, and quickly turned to face her master, trying to think of the words to explain what was happening.

  Valinor pulled up short, though, several yards in front of her, and his burnt-black eyes fell on her staff. She would have expected praise in normal circumstances, and maybe even a hasty ‘congratulations’ now, but she was totally unprepared for the look of shock that crossed his features. His eyes widened to the point that they threatened to pop from his head, and his mouth fell open in a comical “o” of surprise that gave her the insane urge to point and laugh. She looked down at her staff, and for the first time took it in herself, having only seen it so far in the dark of night.

  It was black, far darker than the bark of the tree had been, and though it started out slim and smooth at the bottom, it widened as it grew, and then split into three distinct branches that were woven tightly in among each other in an intricate pattern that was both elegant and somehow savage. There were two spaces where the branchings became one solid piece again, the places where, if she held the staff before her, her hands would be perfectly placed for balance, but then the weaving grew more intricate still, each of the three strands flowing in and out and around the others until they came together once more at the top. The crown was cupped, like Valinor’s, but where his was a gnarled claw, hers was a woven web of a dozen smaller branchings that joined together in perfect symmetry, all sheltered beneath a single arch of higher wood that looked almost deadly, like a farmer’s sickle.

  She looked back to Valinor, stunned herself, and saw that his eyes were not following the elegant twistings and weavings, but were instead staring at a single, fixed point – the crown.

  “Master,” she said hesitantly, “what – ?”

  “What tree did you touch?”

  “I don’t know –”

  He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders and brought her closer to him, so close that his burnt-black eyes filled her vision and she found it hard to breathe. “What tree gave you that staff?”

  “I – it was too dark to see – ”

  This seemed the wrong thing to say. His face blanched and he gnashed his teeth together before he looked away, took a breath, and pulled himself back under control. She was shocked to see such open distress, and when he spoke again, she felt like a small child caught stealing.

  “You took it at night?” he asked, but with a tone that said her answer almost didn’t matter. Not knowing what else he expected of her, she nodded, and his jaw tightened as his burnt eyes blazed with heat.

  “Master, what’s happening? I – the staff isn’t even – is there something wrong with it?”

  “It’s elder wood, isn’t it?” Wren asked.

  Master and apprentice both turned to the boy, who immediately caught their expressions and realized his mistake. “I mean – nevermind. Psh, elder what? Don’t listen to me, I’m just a – ”

  “Elder wood?” AmyQuinn asked, but even as she spoke the word, the wood warmed beneath her hands, and she felt the rightness of it. She thought about the Word that would mean elder in the language of the Sor
ev Ael but realized she’d never learned it. That was strange. She hadn’t even been able to recognize the tree when she’d found it, which meant they’d never covered it in Herbalism.

  “Master,” she said, trying and failing to keep a note of frantic anxiety from her voice, “I don’t understand what’s happening. You told me the staff would choose me and it did – and I used it, too!”

  Valinor’s eyes widened, and, taking this as need for proof, she turned and gestured to Samson, still unconscious on the horse behind her.

  “I was able to heal him with it,” she said, “and it worked when we were attacked, I was able to fight back the sorcerer who came for us – ”

  “You were attacked by a sorcerer?” Valinor asked, the color slowly returning to his face. This seemed the safer course of discussion – this was something he could deal with, it appeared.

  “Y-yes,” she said, thrown. “He was following them – Samson and Wren – and when he came at us he threw black fire. He wore a bone mask – and there was another one – he’s the one that we just saw in Turin Pass –”

  Valinor left her and raced for the wall. AmyQuinn and Wren stared at each other dumbfounded for half a second, and then raced after him, leaving Samson in the care of the women who’d just come from the infirmary to examine him.

  When they caught up, they found the Mage at the top of the wall between two men that bore the stripes and good armor of commanders. All three of them were looking out over the battements; Wren and AmyQuinn followed their gaze.

  The dark man was there, and with him were several dozen soldiers in the silver and black, all mounted. They were wet and disheveled, but looked fearsome all the same, and the man in the bone mask sat his horse at their head, watching the fort. An unnatural darkness seemed to descend around them, encasing them in their own space and turning aside the light of the rising sun. AmyQuinn gasped and felt Wren stiffen beside her.

  Suddenly Valinor pulled back and grabbed her hard by the shoulders again; his rough fingers dug into her skin, painfully tight. “That man,” he said quickly, “that man in the bone mask – is he different than the first one? You said there was another one, what happened to the first?”

  “I – we – Wren stabbed – ”

  Valinor shot a burning look at the boy and seemed to truly see him for the first time. One of his hands released her, only to grab Wren and pull him close.

  “You stabbed him where?” Valinor demanded.

  “The neck!” Wren gasped, too scared to do anything but tell the truth.

  “Did he fall? Did he bleed?”

  “I – I didn’t see blood, it was dark – but he fell! He was on the ground and he didn’t get up. He was just there, and then the others were coming for us, and Samson passed out, so we had to run – ”

  Valinor released him and turned back to AmyQuinn.

  “You said there was another one – are you sure this isn’t the same man?”

  AmyQuinn stared at him blankly, not understanding what he was asking. The man had died – Wren had stabbed in the neck and he’d fallen and…

  The image of the man racing behind them through the Pass suddenly flashed before her mind’s eye. He looked almost exactly like the man who’d died, but she’d just assumed that was because… because…

  Her face must have relayed her thoughts, because Valinor was moving again before she could confirm his fears. He turned to one of the officers farther along the wall who was giving orders.

  “Send the men out,” the officer was saying. “Standard formation – ”

  “No!” the Mage cut in. “You must keep them in.”

  The commander turned to him and seemed to swell; he was a tall man, and quite large. “You are not in charge of this Fort, Sorev Ael,” he said with an effort at civility. “These men are infringing upon the land I’ve sworn to hold and protect. I will not stand for it.”

  “If you send your men out there they’ll die, which will help you neither hold nor protect this land as you have sworn to do,” Valinor replied easily. The commander didn’t make a sound of concession or retreat, but AmyQuinn saw the determination in his small eyes flicker and knew that Valinor had won.

  “Sir,” the younger officer said, the three stripes of rank on his shoulder beneath the rising sun emblem of Fort Turin catching the light, “what do we do if they attack?”

  “Leave that to me,” Valinor said. He reached into his cloak and pulled out his thick yew wand. AmyQuinn felt something swell in him, almost like watching someone take a deep breath before singing, and the rod lengthened, the bottom tip narrowing and tapering to a point and the crown forming into the accustomed gnarled claw. He raised the staff high over his head and murmured an enchantment that AmyQuinn did not know, one that sounded like a booming waterfall.

  A clap of thunder split the air, and then Valinor’s voice was booming out over everything, echoing inside the wall and bouncing off the mountains, loud enough to be heard for what must have been miles in any direction.

  “Your presence here is unwelcome,” he boomed loud and deep, vibrating AmyQuinn’s entire body. “I am Valinor Therin, the Mage of the Eryn-Ra, and I stand in protection of this fortress and the lands beyond with the brave men of Fort Turin at my side. Do not attempt to cross this border – do not attempt to cross me.”

  He fell silent, but the hum of the Words still filled the air. And there was something else as well, something beneath what Valinor had done. She glanced over at Wren and realized he was watching Valinor with glassy eyes. He’d picked out a harmony, somehow, that he’d layered atop the enchantment the Sorev Ael had made. Valinor’s attention was too focused on the men below to notice.

  “YOU HAVE SOMETHING THAT BELONGS TO MY LORD.”

  The voice that rolled out this time was not Valinor’s, but it echoed through the fort and the pass just as loudly. The quality was metallic and biting, and it seemed to drill into AmyQuinn’s skull, setting her teeth on edge.

  “I know not of what you speak,” Valinor said slowly and firmly, each word rolling out clear and unmistakable. “I am a Sorev Ael of Var Athel, a Master of Magery, and I know no lord but the King in Caelron, King Malineri of the –”

  “I CARE NOT FOR YOUR BOY KING!” The voice broke through Valinor’s firm assertion with a savage undertone that brought with it ghostly feelings of pain and fear. “MY LORD IS MORE POWERFUL THAN YOUR KING COULD EVEN DREAM TO BE – AND HE REQUIRES THAT WHICH YOU HAVE TAKEN! DO NOT PAUSE TO RETURN IT; DO NOT SHELTER THOSE THIEVES THAT HAVE STOLEN IT. WE HAVE TRACKED THEM HERE, AND THERE IS NOTHING FOR YOU TO DO BUT TO GIVE THEM TO US NOW.”

  Valinor paused long enough to glance at AmyQuinn and Wren, and his eyes narrowed. He asked them no questions, though, but turned back to the raiders.

  “Who is this lord and what has been taken from him?”

  “MY LORD IS THE KALAC KULL! HE RETURNS FROM FOREIGN SHORES TO MAKE A NEW HOME OF THIS LAND YOU CALL AEON – AND YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE STOLEN, CHANTER! JUST BECAUSE YOU SENT YOUR MINIONS TO BRING IT TO YOU WHILE YOU LAY IN WAIT, SAFE BEHIND YOUR WALLS, DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU HAVE FOOLED ME INTO THINKING YOU ARE IGNORANT.”

  Valinor paused again, and though this time he did not look at them, it was clear that he was thinking of AmyQuinn and Wren, and also Samson down below, thinking over what they’d told him and where they’d been. Wren began to pull away, to try and escape down the stairs, but she grabbed him, holding him where he was even though his eyes shot daggers at her.

  “I do not know of what you speak!” Valinor repeated. “And even if I did, the people of Aeon do not respond to threats. The Sorev Ael of Var Athel do not deal with those who practice the Barred Arcana. Take off your mask, cast down your weapons, and then we shall talk. Thanomancers are not welcome in this land.”

  The man snarled, and as he spoke again AmyQuinn felt the heat behind the words, and she couldn’t keep herself from shaking. “WE WILL FIND YOU!” he roared, his voice dripping with promise. “WE WILL TAKE WHAT YOU HAVE STOLEN, AND
WE WILL TAKE THIS LAND. YOU WILL BURN – ALL OF YOU!”

  He spun his horse around, raised his hand, and shouted a Word of power AmyQuinn had never heard before. It seemed wrong, somehow corrupted: it ripped and tore at the air like a knife instead of ringing like a bell, and all the men on the wall of the fort gasped and took a step back, clutching at their ears.

  A sudden pressure descended on them from nowhere, as though the air itself was trying to crush them. AmyQuinn gasped as she tried to breathe and found she couldn’t. Panic ripped through her; she tried to think of what to do –

  Valinor calmly raised his right hand. The ruby in its enchanted gold band flared with brilliant, burning light, and the Sorev Ael spoke Words that brought peace to all who heard them.

  The crushing pressure eased, and all along the wall AmyQuinn saw men stagger and clutch at their chests. She took a full, deep breath and tried to still the panic racing through her body. Looking over the battlements, she saw the dark sorcerer stagger.

  “Leave,” said Valinor in his amplified voice, “or you will face the Mage of the Eryn-Ra and the brave men of Turin.”

  The man stayed where he was for a long moment, and AmyQuinn couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. Was he contemplating an attack? Was he so confident in his power that he would mount an assault even though he was terribly outnumbered?

  Finally, he turned his horse and retreated with his men back through the pass.

  A ragged cheer went up along the wall, but AmyQuinn couldn’t help but notice that Valinor did not join it. Instead, as soon as the dark man was out of sight, he caught up AmyQuinn and Wren and pulled them with him to the staircase.

  “Tell me everything that happened,” he said quickly. “Everything since after I left you.”

  She did, leaving out no details. When they reached the bottom of the stair, Valinor called for the women who’d just taken Samson to the infirmary and told them to bring him back immediately. They looked bewildered, but none of them seemed ready to contradict a Sorev Ael, and so they went for him while AmyQuinn continued her recitation.

  “… that’s when they came through the ivy the mare had chewed – they burst in through it, and Wren – that’s him – said they needed help! And I thought about the vow, and I knew I had to help them, and so I did my best –”

  Samson arrived, still on the horse to which he’d been tied, and Valinor turned to him. He reached up to touch the boy’s cheek, and then to touch his side, where the stain of the blood was still clear –

  The Sorev Ael recoiled in shock, hissing like a cat.

  “What is he?” Valinor asked, almost to himself.

  “He was burned,” Wren said.

  Valinor turned to the boy.

  “Explain.”

  Wren did as told. He detailed their captivity and their escape, explained finding the Eryn-Ra, and then about the boat, and finally how they’d come to find AmyQuinn in the Wilds.

  Samson stirred weakly from atop his mount, and his eyes opened for half a second as though he’d heard them and was attempting to corroborate the retelling. But he fell back across the horse with a moan before he could form any words.

  “What did you do?” Valinor asked, rounding on AmyQuinn. She shrank back, though his voice was no longer harsh but firm – he needed information, he was not accusing her. “You cannot heal damage done by the blood of an Eryn-Ra.”

  “I – thought I healed him,” she said haltingly. “I don’t know how.”

  “You used the Minor Arcana?”

  “Yes – yes I did at first, but it wasn’t enough.”

  Valinor eyed the black wood of her staff.

  “Not enough?”

  “No – I had to use other Words.”

  His burnt-black eyes were suddenly piercing.

  “Where did you touch him?” he asked harshly, looking her over. Confused, AmyQuinn held up her right hand, and as soon as she did Valinor recoiled, shaking his head as if he smelled something foul.

  “How are you whole?” he asked, watching her with wide, disbelieving eyes. “What Words did you use?”

  “I don’t – I don’t remember.”

  “Try.”

  “I am!”

  “Try harder.”

  “Wait – ”

  ““Heal him, heal me, use the power – let the power heal us, let him be healed, let me be healed, let us withstand this pain, let the pain fade, let the blood not harm us, let the strength be in us, let the blood be in us without pain –“

  AmyQuinn turned slowly as the exact Words she’d said were spoken behind her by the clear tenor voice of Wren. He finished quickly, and then seemed to realize he had spoken out loud. “What?” he asked, his eyes wide as he looked between the two of them. “That’s what she said. Why does everyone have a stick up their – you wanted to know what she said, didn’t you?”

  Valinor moved so quickly that AmyQuinn thought it quite likely he’d simply disappeared from one spot and reappeared holding Wren by the scruff of the neck instead of taking the time to actually cross the intervening distance. The boy squawked a sound of protest, but Valinor spoke over him.

  “How do you know the speech of Var Athel?”

  “I – I don’t – no, wait, I swear – I just know sounds!”

  “Master!” AmyQuinn said; she hurried over but stopped short of physically puling Valinor away from the boy. “No – it’s not like that. He doesn’t know the Words, he just makes sounds – he was humming them earlier, he does that a lot, I don’t know why! But he was humming when I healed Samson, and it – I don’t know, it made it easier somehow – it felt like the Words were easier to use!”

  Valinor continued to hold Wren, scrutinizing his face with such intensity that AmyQuinn suddenly worried the gaze alone would set the boy on fire. She had no idea whether or not her words had penetrated, nor whether what she’d said had helped or hurt Wren’s case, but as the moment lengthened, she began to fear the worst. She swallowed hard, thinking about what else to say –

  The Sorev Ael let the boy go. Wren fell and turned like a cat in midair so that he was right side up when he landed on all fours. He was up and scrambling away as soon as he was in contact with the hard-packed dirt, but he only got a few steps before the Mage was after him.

  “Stop,” Valinor said, but Wren wanted nothing to do with him now. He did not obey in the slightest, but instead turned for the long main street that led through the shops and civilian houses of Fort Turin, ready to make a run for it.

  “Bae selnat!”

  The boy’s feet stopped moving, and he pitched forward, crashing to the earth. Valinor walked quickly up to him, then waved his hand and dispelled the force holding the boy in place. Wren was immediately back up again, but before he took another step, Valinor spoke:

  “If you run, the same thing will happen again.”

  The boy stopped and shot a look back at the Sorev Ael, his dirty, matted hair swaying into his eyes. He looked at least to be taking in what Valinor had said, but his face was screwed up into a scowl and every muscle in his body still looked primed to run.

  “Turn and come back to me,” the Mage said.

  “So you can yell at me again?” Wren retorted. “That sounds inviting.”

  One of the soldiers from the wall came up to Valinor – a group of them had followed him down, nearly a dozen strong, and they were looking at Wren with disapproval. “Shall we take him, sir?” the man asked. He had a knot of rank on his chest beneath the rising sun emblem.

  “No,” Valinor said quietly, “but we must be gone within the hour. Send messengers for horses – we need fresh ones for the two boys and the girl – and see that they are packed with provisions. We will leave by the southern gate as soon as it’s all gathered – we ride with haste for Var Athel itself. Do not touch the boy on the horse – you risk your life in doing so. Go.”

  The soldier handled all of this with surprising professionalism. There was a brief flash of confusion and surprise, but i
t was quickly smoothed over, and then he was motioning to those nearest him and sending them running about the Fort. New horses were handed to AmyQuinn and Wren, and their saddlebags were rushed away to be filled with provisions.

  “Well,” Wren said awkwardly. “You don’t need me anymore, so I’ll just – ”

  “Take one step more and I’ll turn you into a newt,” Valinor said, his tone completely serious. “And not one of the cute green ones – a fat one covered in warts and slime that offends even the other newts.”

  Wren squinted at the Sorev Ael and turned his head slightly to one side.

  “You’re a persuasive man.”

  “Get on the horse.”

  After a brief hesitation, he did, muttering, “Just like home!” under his breath.

  “Master,” AmyQuinn said, turning back to Valinor as he undid the binding that held Samson to his saddle and transferred the Islander to a new horse. The Sorev Ael was very careful not to touch the young man with his bare hands and took great pains to make sure the clothes stained with blood were carefully wrapped in further layers. When finally he finished the maneuver and Samson was tied in place, AmyQuinn pressed on with her questions: “What’s happening? What’s going on?”

  The Mage paused before responding.

  “What is happening is that this boy is dying. That much Eryn-Ra blood should have killed him – and the fact that it hasn’t yet makes me more fearful, not less. What is happening is that you’re being pursued by a thanomancer of great power. Possibly even something darker – some new combination of necromancy and the other arts of the Barred Arcana that I cannot yet explain.”

  “But he stopped,” Wren said, unable to help himself. “We’re safe – he can’t come into the fort. He’s gone!”

  AmyQuinn thought as much as well, but Valinor made no comment. He instead went to Samson and caught up the checkrein of the horse, pulling him along. Already there were soldiers rushing in their direction with bags packed. It appeared that they had taken the Sorev Ael at his word and wasted no time in fetching him what he needed.

  “Water and provisions, sir,” said the officer from before. His face was flushed and his sandy hair wind-blown; clearly he’d run at least one of the errands himself.

  But Valinor did not respond. His face had darkened and turned inwards, and as they watched, he slowly turned away. The soldiers followed his gaze, looking toward the fort’s northern wall.

  A heavy sound like a struck gong assailed their ears, and something crashed into the fort’s massive main gate. A ripple of force rocked the whole of the northern wall, and AmyQuinn watched in horror as half a dozen men fell from the battlements.

  Valinor spat out a series of Words before anyone else could react, and the air solidified beneath the falling men, stopping their descent; but seconds later the same sensation came again, shaking the world around and beneath them as though it might tear apart, and though Valinor spoke more Words, cracking them out so fast that AmyQuinn could not hope to follow them, the wall continued to shake and tremble.

  The rumbling built, growing louder and louder until it was almost unbearable. AmyQuinn threw her hands over her ears, unable to stand the sound. Men around her were dropping to their knees in much worse condition: many of them were bending over to be violently sick; others were clutching their chests and gasping for breath as though they’d lost the ability to breathe; and still more were holding eyes, noses, and ears that were bleeding freely.

  The sound stopped as suddenly as it had come. They looked around, stunned, and many men regained their feet, whipping their mouths or pulling in deep breaths. The silence lengthened, and she thought maybe it was over.

  A single, booming explosion rocked the dawning day, and the doors of the fort blew inward with such force that they were thrown through the walls of the houses nearest them.

  Beyond stood a single figure, his dark cloak gone, his bone mask and armor revealed. He was gasping for breath as though he had run a mile, but his eyes were searching through the fort, searching for Wren and Samson and AmyQuinn.

  Valinor threw himself astride his horse and shot a blazing look at them.

  “Follow me – run!”

 
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